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Uselessness, Refusal, Art, and Money (encounters with David Graeber's Towards an Anthropological Theory of Value).

Friday, 25. January 2013 | 00:00 (tz: Europe/Amsterdam)

On Reading  Alone

I report here on an encounter with a book, and an encounter with the problems of reading itself.  The book: David Graeber's Towards an Anthropological Theory of Value.  which I picked up following the trail of Marcel Mauss' The Gift (Graeber's book is a meditation on the differing visions of Mauss and Marx for economic life as read through the lens of anthropology).  If you operate outside of institutions, which I typically do, one book leads to another and another along solitary and idiosyncratic paths.  You often find yourself in a cloud of companionship with people you've never met, some living, some dead, some speaking native languages you have no acquaintance with.  This is thrilling, but a little surreal. As you'll see, Towards an Anthropological Theory of Value was a pleasure to wrestle with and test ideas against, but for me it also represented the moment where I turned from an ideal of books engendering books in the future, to books as a way of making relationships in the present.

Beautiful Money

Once upon a time I suggested that art is just another form of money (a beautiful money)—that artists are like tiny nations each minting their own currency, and the art world is an instrument for calibrating the values of all those currencies as they move against each other.1 Though I meant this in a somewhat flip way, I think now I was actually quite wrong.

I had wanted to point to the way in which the value of artworks was arbitrary, or to use a favorite word, imaginary. In some sense this is true of all forms of value: value is something we assign to things, something we give them, not something inherent. But it’s clear that we treat the value of a hammer in a different way than we treat the value of a work of art. The more dramatic this difference, the more it becomes a puzzle to be investigated.

Artists have fretted about their relationship to money forever, so you would think we would have long ago resolved any important questions, but the opposite seems to be happening. The anti-market experiments of the 60′s stubbornly refused to die off even as the commercial gallery system ballooned. In the 90′s and 00′s, a number of artists began new bodies of work directly addressing money and monetary structures (see Olav Velthius’ Imaginary Economics for a good survey) and the last five years have seen a growth of underground of artistic gift economies, time banks, DIY granting agencies, and other alternative ways of organizing counter to the art market (a number are collected in What we Want is Free, edited by Ted Purves).2 The question has been with us a while, but it isn’t losing urgency or momentum.

We can blame this situation on the now vanishing avant-garde, whose utopian projects still have us in their grip. At the turn of the last century art tried to extricate itself from the interests of the powerful and wealthy that it had long served, declaring itself autonomous and free by virtue of its uselessness. Artists and theorists of the time were perfectly aware that art was actually useful, even at times powerful. The declaration of uselessness was a refusal. A worker’s strike. Art’s still out on strike, but it’s been so long that no one really remembers why.3

With art on strike, others rushed in to replace its functions. Art’s main business of persuasion (the one it so wanted to leave behind) was taken over by advertising, public relations, and politics. Storytelling was done by movies and TV, representation by the snapshot (obviously this is a radical simplification, but let it stand for the moment). Like many workers in the wake of a very long strike, art had lost its job, and with it, its “relevance”—the sense that it was actually needed.

The most common strategy for counteracting that loss of relevance has been to replace persuasion with provocation. A contemporary artwork without some form of provocation, one which isn’t against something, is almost unthinkable. But with the loss of a feeling that the avant-garde is, or was. or even should be, really out in front of anything, the provocative uselessness of art has started to feel like an empty gesture. Artists and theorists have been looking for an out. There have been calls to abandon autonomy altogether—to give up the strike (see Michael Lingner’s “post-autonomy,” which sets itself against uselessness, Stephen Wright’s “redundancy,” a way of being useless and useful at the same time, Gregory Sholette’s politically centered “collective and critical autonomy,” or their precursor, Alan Kaprow’s idea of the “unartist”).4 And there have been moves to acknowledge that autonomy, like all strikes and utopian projects, had political ends in mind from the beginning (see, for instance, Jacques Rancière).5

It’s exactly this declaration of uselessness which is responsible for making the value of art less like the value of a hammer or even of an artisanal pot, and more like a game. But art, at the high end of the market, and within the cultural institutions that house it after death (those tombs—mausoleums!—we call museums) doesn’t want to be just a game, it wants to be something more like a treasure.

Which brings us to David Graeber.

Reading Between

There was a time when I spent my afternoons with the jangle of Bollywood music, stacks of books, post office customs forms, and a mountain of padded envelopes. I would collect addresses from my email, write them out in Sharpie on the envelopes, and slip in a copy of David Graeber’s Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value; The False Coin of Our Own Dreams.

I was sending out the most interesting book I had read in the previous year. Graeber is an anthropologist, also an anarchist and activist, and his book is one of those where a hundred ideas spin off every page. It includes lucid critiques of postmodernism, discussion of gift economies, an intriguing perspective on Marx (which caused me to spend that summer reading Capital), a theory of social creativity, and countless lively anthropological examples. I’m still mulling over a small aside he made on the meaning of men’s and women’s fashion.

As I had turned its pages on my couch every morning, I thought about the way in which books are simultaneously social and solitary. Graeber’s book started up a vigorous conversation in my head, but no one I knew was reading it. My solution was “Reading Between,” an art action where I sent a free copy of the book to anyone who wanted it, creating an elusive network of co-reading.6

One of Graeber’s projects in Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value is to try and make a link between moral values and financial ones, to create a theory that makes sense of why we use the same word in both spheres, even though they are in some ways quite inimical to each other (“values,” after all, are typically the things that money can’t buy: love, community, peace, honor). Values and valuables are both kinds of things we care about, things we would give up something else for; surely there’s a way to sort through how they relate to one another.

In the book he makes the distinction between forms of money where any given unit (a dollar, a bead) is identical or equivalent to any other, and valuables like heirlooms which are unique enough to have their own histories and names. Dollars work because you don’t know or care where they’ve been before you got them and because you wouldn’t, for the most part, mind trading any dollar you happened to have for a dollar someone else has. Heirlooms or treasures, by contrast, often gain value as they change hands. The story of who has owned them becomes a part of the importance of the object and that importance can also rub off on the owners, even the temporary ones.

“Money,” says Graeber, “tends to be represented as an invisible potency because of its capacity to turn into any other thing. Money is the potential for future specificity even if it is a potential that can only be realized through a future act of exchange.” Then he goes on to contrast this with heirlooms and treasures: “In this, [money] stands opposed to objects whose value is rooted in past actions (whatever those may be). The latter are not only often objects of display in their own right; they have a power to inspire action in others, a power that clearly has much in common with that of aristocratic display or royal splendor. “ Artworks function like heirlooms or treasures rather than money in his system, precisely because they have individual names and histories, and it matters which artwork you have (you can’t trade a Rembrandt for a Damien Hirst without anyone caring which they end up with).7

“Really, what one is talking is the object’s capacity to accumulate a history: hence, in our society at least, there are artifacts that are truly unique (the Hope diamond, Monet’s water lilies, the Brooklyn Bridge), and then, just below them in value, a class of “collector’s items” (ancient Greek coins, Miro prints, first-edition Silver Surfer comic books). These are not quite unique, but they have a rarity that derives from their historical origins; what’s more, when they circulate, they almost invariably accumulate a further history in the form of a pedigree of former owners—which then in turn tends to further enhance their value. In any society, one should probably be able to map out at least a rough continuum of types of objects, ranked according their capacity to accumulate history: from the crown jewels at the top, to, at the bottom, such things as a gallon of motor oil, or two eggs over easy.”8

Graeber’s key insight is to see the elusive relationship between values and valuable objects as one based on time. And what mediates this relationship is action. We may think of values as being part of the present, but really they are all about the future. They are potentials, templates for new action. They state in advance what we care about and how we intend to behave. Valuables, on the other hand, are values in the past tense. They represent or show the effects of actions that have already happened, actions which evoke or were based on values. We can’t literally see these values when we look at the object, instead they exist in a field of associations, a cloud of knowledge and fantasy. They are projections; histories, stories, names, things we know or imagine. As Graeber puts it: “when one recognizes value in an object, one becomes a sort of bridge across time. That is, one recognizes not only the existence of a history of past desires and intentions that have given shape to the present form of the object, but that history extends itself through one’s own desires, wishes, and intentions, newly mobilized in that very act of recognition .”9 Valuables have a kind of secondary agency because they are able, through the values they collect around themselves, to inspire action.

Graeber links money to the power of infinite potential. We don’t know what it is capable of. In this way, it is more than a little like magic. When objects function as treasures, they tend to be displayed and used to inspire. When they function as money, they tend to be invisible or hidden.

With the help of Graeber’s untangling, it’s clear that artists aren’t really minting currency in their studios. Instead they’re creating the kinds of objects that collect stories around themselves. Part of what’s confusing is that those stories are, since the turn of the last century, in part about uselessness, refusal and the ideal of unalienated life—which makes them, in turn, about money.

Unalienated Life

It’s no accident, I think, that the modernist precursors of the avant-garde began their move as Europe and America’s period of political revolution had cross-faded into the end stages of the industrial revolution. Money, that mysterious force, dominated more and more of life. Work had become wage labor, and wages, in turn, had become the primary means that most people used to meet their basic needs for food, housing, and everything else.

One of the things I think we see in artworks is the ideal of the unalienated creative work that we imagine went into making them.10 This flips right back to the questions Marx raised about our human life and labor. How is it, he asks, somewhat plaintively, that we have taken something precious in the sense of priceless–the human capacity for creative action–and made it into something that can be bought and sold? Something fundamentally incommensurable, the individual and unique human soul, becomes (under capitalism) reduced to its status as a fully exchangeable and replaceable unit of labor. In this model (as in the bohemian and countercultural fantasy) there is something directly opposed about money and the ideal of unalienated life. It is the situation of exchanging (needing to exchange) one’s own incommensurable and specific self stuff for the blank potentiality of money that causes alienation in the first place.

In this way it suddenly becomes intelligible that the more elaborated and dominant capitalism becomes, the more valuable (financially) artworks become. Works of art in general represent artisanal modes of production, the relative privacy and sexiness of the studio, the pure idealized notion of creativity and individual genius. As as artworks collect their stories and histories (stories about genius, freedom, and creativity, histories of who has owned them and why), they come to symbolize and embody these values. They gain a capacity to inspire. As Graeber suggests, it is exactly that history and capacity to inspire that tends to make artworks gain financial value.

As the industrial revolution progresses and the role of money expands, some dominant values, like the protestant work ethic, link making money to signs of God’s grace. But societies also have counter-values and counter-powers. The dream of unalienated life is one of capitalism’s counter-values, and one of the places it survives and persists is in art. The project of the avant-garde, by exaggerating art’s uselessness (it was always slightly useless, just not exclusively useless), began a state of cultural confusion. If art was a value, rather than a valuable, it should be outside the realm of exchange and commodity; it had done its best to move away from the marketplace and into the conversation about values and meanings. After more than a hundred years of struggle, we can only laugh at the result—this “useless” art commands an ever inflating market of its own. There’s every reason to believe that the art market now is bigger than it has ever been in the history of humankind (by whatever measure you like: more dollars, more transactions, more auctions, more fairs and festivals, more galleries, more museums, more schools, more artists, and certainly more artworks). Graeber’s analysis helps show why this happened, why it was in some sense inevitable. The more emphatically the work of art declares itself to be about values, the more likely it is to make itself into a treasure.

Having pulled apart money and art a bit, what happens when you put them back together again? When art deliberately plays with its own exchange value, when it embraces its own reproducibility or mimics the outward form of money, does it become any more like money? No. These gestures are critiques and provocations. The closer art comes to the form of money, the farther it pushes away from actual money. Money itself cannot play, it must always be unironic. There is no humor and no self awareness in money’s constant flow. At the heart of money itself is a necessary void. Money is the abstraction that must be able to turn itself into any particular thing. It must do everything it can to gesture away from it’s own form and be ready to take up the forms of the things it can buy.

Art which plays with money declares itself to be part of a conversation about values (at its best it embodies and concretizes a gambit in that conversation.) As Graeber shows us, it is precisely this declaration that makes works of art less and less like money. The danger instead is something different. By engaging in provocation and critique, by staking claims in the world of values, and by embodying those critiques and values in particular form, artworks can become symbols of their own arguments. Once this happens, if people do start to care about them, artworks begin the transmutation from arguments into treasures. The original provocation or critique can become buried like the irritating grain of sand that causes an oyster to smooth it into a pearl.

Oh, uselessness, must we forsake you? Your promise to deliver us from capitalism simply turns around and gives us straight to the market. The more we resist, the tighter the knot. But if uselessness is a refusal, a strike, it’s also an assertion of another schema of value. Behind the veil of “uselessness” lie many of our most precious experiences: in fact, everything which is done for its own sake. Games, kisses, conversations, walks in the woods….

Value for Graeber, like Marx before him, is essentially something social. It is always, in some sense, public and shared (I hear an echo of anthropologist Clifford Geertz: “culture is public because meaning is”).11 But if we think about “value” as “what we care about,” then it’s clear that there’s another sphere of value that Graeber leaves out. This is the sphere of things we love for their own sake, things that are often socially de-valued: pleasure, play, leisure, hobbies, sex, conversation, learning, napping, sports, entertainment, reading, hanging out. We may or may not hold these things high in the public sphere of values, but privately some people at least care about them a great deal. In fact, they can be so intrinsically rewarding that most systems of socialization (religions, etc.) are all about putting limits on them.

These kinds of activities are enjoyed in real time, not deferred or referred to through symbols. These aren’t the kinds of values that are alchemically transformed into Graeber’s “valuables.” Graeber points us to the ways in which valuables and values are about the past and the future, the ways actions take on social meaning through time. But what about the present? For Marx, the labor that counts is never private. For Graeber, the values that count are never private either. But we do live privately as well as publicly, and though the past and the future matter to us, we can also care about the present. We live in body, in experience, and in time. If unalienated labor is the utopia of usefulness and social connection, things we do for their own sake could be thought of as an eden of uselessness.

It’s true that the gesture of the avant-garde always had political motives. To provoke is to openly display your desire for change. Critique and utopia go hand-in-hand. But could there be a second motive, more unconscious and more protective? Could the veil of uselessness be hiding something, keeping it semi-secret? If at one end of the spectrum of the art world you have museums, which are treasure houses, dedicated to promoting values by preserving and displaying valuables, then at the other end is the studio, where we can’t quite see what goes on. Is there hidden dimension inside our own in which making art is more like making love than like making money? Uselessness preserves in the sphere of art an open space for uncoerceable forms of pleasure, not just unalienated labor, but unalienated play.

: : :


[1.] Sal Randolph, “Beautiful Money (Art as Money, Art as Experience)” http://salrandolph.com/text/12/beautiful-money-art-as-currency-art-as-experience , originally published as “Vakra Pengar. Konsten som Valuta, Konsten sum Upplevese,” Ord&Bild, 2-3, 2005.

[2.] Olav Velthius, Imaginary Economics; Contemporary Artists and the World of Big Money, NAi Publishers, Belgium, 2005. Ted Purves, ed. What We Want is Free, State University of New York Press, Albany, 2005.

[3.] The projects of the avant-garde are various and contradictory enough that theorist Peter Bürger (Theory of the Avant-Garde) could come to the opposite conclusion about the meaning of the avant-garde’s gesture. To Bürger, writing in particular about the historical Dada and Surrealist avant-garde, the whole purpose of the avant-garde was to end art’s autonomy. Bürger defines autonomy as the modernist and bourgeois “separation of of art from the praxis of life,” which makes the early avant-garde’s desire to join art and life a direct attack on that autonomy (and certainly the avant-garde’s projects included attempts to break bourgeois conventions of living, to destroy existing institutions, to open new avenues of aliveness). The contradiction lies in the meaning that Bürger makes of art’s autonomy. Clearly the key question about autonomy is “autonomy from what?” Bürger take’s Kant’s notion of “disinterested” judgement in aesthetic experience and follows it into the specific notion of being separate from the practicalities of life. My own view of art’s autonomy moves along a different valence; it is autonomy in the sense of self-direction and self-initiation, freedom from service to the interests of the powerful. This kind of autonomy takes from the idea of disinterested judgment its refusal of instrumentality, its refusal to be used. It is also born in modernism, but intensifies with the avant-garde’s attempt to destroy conventions and institutions (including the institution of art itself). Autonomy here is radically generative and radically free. It is, in a sense, life.

See Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. Michael Shaw, University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

[4.] See, for instance, Michael Lingner, “Art as a System Within Society,” http://ask23.hfbk-hamburg.de/draft/archiv/ml_publikationen/kt93-1.html , Stephen Wright, “Sweet Fuck All,” http://www.voghchaberd.am/text.php?text=sweet , Gregory Sholette “Some Call it Art” http://www.gregorysholette.com/writings/writingpdfs/06_somecallit.pdf , Gregory Sholette, “Fidelity, Betrayal, Autonomy,” http://gregorysholette.com/writings/writingpdfs/08_fidelity.pdf , Alan Kaprow, “The Education of the Un-Artist (parts I, II, and III) in Alan Kaprow, Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1993.

[5.] Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, Continuum, New York, 2004, also Jacques Ranciere, The Emancipated Spectator, Verso, New York, 2009.

[6.] Reading Between, http://salrandolph.com/art/24/reading-between .

[7.] David Graeber, Toward an Anthropological Theory of Value; The False Coin of Our Own Dreams, Palgrave, New York, 200, page 114.

[8.] Graeber, 2001, p. 34.

[9.] Graeber, 2001, p. 115.

[10.] Graeber discusses this a bit in “The Twilight of Vanguardism,” in David Graeber, Possibilities; Essays on Hierarchy, Rebellion, and Desire, AK Press, Oakland, 2007 also http://www.scribd.com/doc/34485848/Graeber-The-Twilight-of-Vanguard.

[11.] Clifford Geertz, “Thick Description” in The Interpretation of Cultures, Basic Books, New York, 1973, p. 12 – Geertz, in turn, echoes Wittgenstein.

An earlier version of this essay originally appeared on Art as Money.


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